“Really, it was NBC News who broke the story yesterday — so, good for you — that it says on your website that Donald Trump was not briefed on this intelligence matter,” said Conway.
At issue is a much-discussed briefing last Friday in New York including Trump and U.S. intelligence chiefs. The big shots were due to discuss allegations that Russia had hacked into U.S. institutions in an effort to sway the 2016 presidential election. Though the briefing was heavily covered in the media, CNN on Tuesday afternoon shed brand-new light on the proceedings.
“Intel chiefs presented Trump with claims of Russian efforts to compromise him,” reads the headline that drove a few frenzied days up and down the I-95 corridor. Under the bylines of Evan Perez, Jim Sciutto, Jake Tapper and Carl Bernstein, CNN alleged that both President Obama and President-elect Trump had been “presented” with documents including “allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” Moments after that story landed, BuzzFeed went ahead and published the dossier in full, placing in the public realm allegations that other organizations, including CNN, deemed too unverified to release.
The dossier is the work of a former British intelligence officer who started compiling the information as part of an opposition research project first for GOP groups opposing Trump and later for Democratic interests. The CNN reporting team noted that “US intelligence agencies have now checked out the former British intelligence operative and his vast network throughout Europe and find him and his sources to be credible enough to include some of the information in the presentations to the President and President-elect a few days ago.”
CNN, furthermore, was initially silent on the question of whether the intelligence briefing verbally addressed the information, which came in the form of a two-page synopsis of the dossier and was appended to the intelligence community’s larger report on Russian electoral interference. “CNN has confirmed that the synopsis was included in the documents that were presented to Mr. Trump but cannot confirm if it was discussed in his meeting with the intelligence chiefs,” notes the article.
On Wednesday morning, Cynthia McFadden of NBC News presented some new reporting on the matter. “What we know is that a senior U.S. intelligence official who was involved in the preparation for the meeting tells NBC that the president-elect was not briefed on this so-called two-page addendum of these allegations against him — that it was part of the briefing materials available to the briefers,” said McFadden on MSNBC, summarizing some reporting in an online story titled “Trump Wasn’t Told About Russia Memo During Briefing, Official Says.” “But it was not included because they believed it to be true. It was included for a different reason. It was included — should they feel they needed to explain to Mr. Trump the difference between analyzed intelligence and what they’re calling ‘unvetted disinformation.’ That it was available for that purpose and it never came up. Importantly, documents were never presented to Mr. Trump or his team.”
More: “This was an oral briefing … and we are told definitively that this was not told to Mr. Trump at the time.”
“Unvetted disinformation,” huh? No wonder Team Trump so adored the NBC News reporting. By one definition, “disinformation” means “false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.”
An on-the-record statement from Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. quite pointedly shied away from endorsing or dissing the synopsis: “The IC has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions,” reads the statement in part.
Here’s how the New York Times framed the intelligence community’s decision to include the synopsis: “The material was not corroborated, and The New York Times has not been able to confirm the claims,” notes the newspaper’s story on the matter. “But intelligence agencies considered it so potentially explosive that they decided Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump and congressional leaders needed to be told about it and informed that the agencies were actively investigating it.” And the Wall Street Journal reported that the “allegations were deemed sufficiently significant by senior intelligence officials to summarize them in a two-page addendum” and that those officials felt that the president-elect should be apprised of them.
So, does NBC News stand by the notion that the synopsis was included as a display of “unvetted disinformation”?
The company declined to comment on the record for this story.
Now to the question of whether Trump was briefed on the synopsis last Friday. On television Wednesday morning, McFadden said he wasn’t; the online story said that Trump was “not told about unverified reports that Russia has compromising information on him during last week’s intelligence briefing.” On the Wednesday night edition of “NBC Nightly News,” correspondent Hallie Jackson said, “A senior intelligence official with knowledge of the document tells NBC News Trump was never briefed about it.” Here’s a screenshot from from that edition of NBC News’s flagship program:
Reince Priebus, the incoming Trump chief of staff, told the “Today” show that he’d attended the intelligence briefing, yet the first he heard of the dossier was when BuzzFeed published it.
Last evening, however, CNN reported that Trump and FBI Director James B. Comey had a “brief one-on-one conversation at Friday’s intelligence briefing.”
As it turns out, then, he was told about the matter. So did NBC News get it wrong? Not by its own account. “FBI’s Comey Told Trump About Russia Dossier After Intel Briefing,” reads the headline on an NBC News story from last night. Bolding added to display the most important word in the headline. To draw this critical distinction, the NBC News online report notes, “As NBC News has previously reported, Trump was not told about the contents of the dossier during the formal briefing.”
Come on, NBC News! No one out there in newsland is drawing distinctions between some “formal” briefing and a one-on-one session that occurs in the same setting. Certainly Kellyanne Conway drew no such distinctions when she tweeted:
A rule for the next four years: When the Trump people are touting your reporting, worry.
CNN’s Tapper told the Erik Wemple Blog in a statement: “We were always confident in our reporting, multi-sourced, diligently and carefully told, and then matched by respected journalists at places such as the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal. Sure, some others relied on sources who turned out to be wrong, and they got burned, and that’s embarrassing for them. For us, we’re going to keep doing our jobs.”
Update: An NBC News spokesperson has responded with the following statement: “NBC News has been precise and accurate in our reporting every step of the way, at a time when precision and accuracy are at a premium.”